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Malawi: Tomato farmers use pesticides to protect their livelihoods

It is a chilly Saturday morning and the sky is engulfed with a dark grey cloud, signaling that it might rain soon. Shabani Phiri arrives at his one-and-half acre tomato field with a sprayer, watering can, and two small bottles of pesticides. He quickly dashes to the nearby river to draw water to mix with the pesticides. Then, he starts spraying the solution on his tomato plants.

Mr. Phiri fears that if he does not use the pesticides, all of his plants will die because pests are attacking the leaves, stems, fruit, and roots. He explains, “In my area, to grow tomato you must be prepared to spend more money on pesticides. Otherwise, a farmer might fail to harvest anything.”

Mr. Phiri hails from Mdesi village in Dowa district, located north of Lilongwe, the capital city of Malawi. Farmers in this area are dealing with an infestation of tomato pests, and many are relying on pesticides to ensure they can turn a profit.

Mr. Phiri explains that many farmers in his area have stopped growing tomatoes because of the high cost of controlling pests. He adds: “In the past, there were few incidences of pests … but now the costs have skyrocketed because the pests are damaging the crop too much, such that if not controlled, the whole field of tomato is wiped out.”

Mr. Phiri sprays pesticides in his field every seven days, which is both labour-intensive and costly. He explains, “Every Saturday, I apply pesticides to save my tomato plants from pests. A single bottle of pesticides is currently costing about 2,300 Malawian kwacha [about $3 US].”

Every Saturday, Mr. Phiri uses two bottles of pesticides in his one-and-half acre field.

Lemisoni Chimpeni is the extension worker in the area. He says farmers are using a number of pesticides to control the pests because the level of damage is so severe that, if the pests are not controlled, every plant in the field would be affected. The pests include diamondback moths, aphids, stem borers, fruit flies, and cutworms and other caterpillars. Mr. Chimpeni explains, “We advise tomato farmers to use dimethoate or cypermethrin or other pesticides available on the market, such as actellic.”

However, Mr. Chimpeni is quick to point out that using chemicals such as pesticides to control pests in tomato plants is not the best practice, because chemicals can be hazardous to humans. He adds: “We strongly recommend [the] use of physical control methods of removing pests or the attacked crops, and also the biological control method, such as using other insects [which prey on the pests]. But the challenge is that farmers want to preserve every tomato plant in the garden, and that is why they prefer the chemical use of pesticides.”

Precious Tsogolani is a tomato farmer from the nearby village of Munika. He says farmers need to be careful with pesticides because they are dangerous. He adds, “We have learnt from the extension worker and from experience that farmers should not harvest, sell, or eat tomato that has recently been sprayed [with] pesticides.”

The time between spraying and safe harvesting varies depending on the pesticide. Mr. Tsogolani says the extension worker usually advises farmers in the area to read and follow the instructions on the label of the pesticide bottle regarding when a pesticide should and should not be sprayed, and the required interval between spraying and harvest.

Mr. Tsogolani adds, “A person can get sick or even die if he or she consumes tomatoes soon after pesticides are sprayed on it.”

Although tomato farming is increasingly facing big pest challenges, Mr. Phiri has vowed to continue growing the crop because it gives him good returns. Mr. Phiri makes $750 US from growing tomatoes twice a year, from which he spends about $150 US on pesticides. He says, “In 2016, I bought 30 corrugated iron sheets, and this year I will use them to build a house. I also use money from tomatoes to buy fertilizer for use in [growing] maize, which is our staple food.”

Photo credit: Mark Ndipita